Expert speak: The need for the EdTech industry to course correct its advertising

EdTech industry

EdTech industry is working on changing its course in advertising after coming under ASCI’s scanner multiple times. We speak to industry experts about how can the industry be more responsible in its communication.

The Education Technology (EdTech) industry has grown by leaps and bounds after the pandemic. It has also gained a lot of attention from investors and has seen momentum in mergers and acquisitions. 

However, it also has come under the Advertising Standard Council of India’s (ASCI) scanner time and again. The industry continues to be one of the biggest violators of its advertising guidelines. 

After analysing a total of 100 edtech advertisements across print, TV, digital video and static mediums, ASCI’s report declared that like traditional education ads, EdTech ads too, have a significant focus on marks and ranks. 

Indian kids are already bogged down by examination anxiety and parental pressure. EdTech further adds to their stress by emphasising on exams and making superlative claims. 

The industry is also responsible for making tall and false claims. As per ASCI, about one-third of EdTech ads used superlative claims of being the ‘best’, ‘largest’ or ‘top’ in some parameter. 

The report further added that over 49% of parents choosing platforms based on advertising. 73% of parents also felt that ads showed high pressure of studies and also none of the endorsers/ role models in the ads were from the academic field.

Social Samosa speaks to EdTech platforms, advertising agencies, and consultants to find out how can the industry change its course. 

Problematic Narratives

A bunch of sharply-dressed businessmen are fighting to get their hands on the latest raging app in the market. Parents are sitting on the veranda, sipping tea and smiling at the war-like situation in front of their house. It would be hard to believe that is the plot of an advertisement that aimed to promote an EdTech platform for little kids. The app in discussion was created by a 6-year-old and this ad went on to receive a lot of flak on social media and was later removed after ASCI’s interference. 

It wasn’t a standalone case. ASCI has a seen similar pattern in the industry. As per the study, “In some ads, exam time is shown as a war-like situation and students as warriors fighting a battle. The music and the dramatisation create an atmosphere of a do-or-die battle. The stress is shown affecting both students and their families.”

Another recent ad by a leading EdTech platform told students that consoling messages like “Work harder next time,” and “it is not a problem” are something people say but teachers have to give you the hard truth as it is and make you reach your goal and win, adding to the pressure kids already face.  

EdTech platforms also push kids to dream big and think only about studying from top institutes. In an advertisement featuring Aamir Khan, a leading EdTech platform said that improving your mathematical skills can get you into IIT, implying that the student would get placements into leading institutes if they get enrolled onto the EdTech platform.

Exaggeration and making false claims is yet another problem that the industry faces. ASCI revealed that about 26% of the ads made promises guaranteeing success by way of improving marks or helping the student become a topper.

Nisha Singhania- Chief Executive Officer, Infectious Advertising said, “There are many things amiss with the way education is advertised in India. One big problem is institutes making false claims to try and lure students – from claiming leadership positions to guaranting placements – these need to be stopped and the institutes need to be held accountable.” 

Arts and crafts are out of syllabus

Other key patterns visible in such ads include a distinct bias towards maths and science as prime subjects, gender imbalance, and harping on stereotypes. 

For example, in 2017, BYJU’s released a campaign with Shah Rukh Khan, singing Math Musical to make learning maths fun for kids. Only recently BYJU’s seems to have shifted its focus by onboarding footballer Lionel Messi and targeting kids who love sports. 

Even when EdTechs attempt to share heartwarming messages like kids are guiding parents nowadays, for cut-aways, they show kids learning science or doing math. 

With this, the industry makes a conscious decision of leaving out art, crafts, dance and other subject of careers out of their syllabus. There seems to be no space for subjects beyond maths and science. 

For an industry that relies a lot on celebrity-led advertisements and features big Bollywood stars like Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, etc, it is ironic how the industry leaves out the studies of arts and related branches in its ads. 

“Most of EdTech advertising is guilty of reinforcing harmful stereotypes in society. The absolute domination of subjects like Science and Maths colour codes merit in the minds of young Indians. It creates an invisible hierarchy of subjects. Furthermore, these ads reinforce baseless gender stereotypes with a study showing only boys were chosen 2.5x times more than girls as protagonists,” said Sourodeep  Banerjee, Associate Creative Director at The Rabbit Hole. 

The Funding Winter 

“Edtech has received a lot of attention and money in the last few years. COVID-19 accelerated mergers and acquisitions in this sector as well. However, there have been unethical sales methods and questionable advertising that have come to light, which happens when the VC pressures of ‘growth at any cost’ become real,” said  N. Chandramouli, CEO, TRA. 

He said that the only way to ensure that things are better is through self-regulation and ensuring ed-tech companies do not sell using the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt)-based techniques. 

“The pressure on education is high for India as a country. In fact, an Indian child anywhere in the world is expected to perform well in exams. However, by showing high-pressure exam ads, brands are increasing parental anxiety, which is not a good way to sell,” added Chandramouli. 

Changing Course 

Experts suggested that self-regulation is the way to move forward. 

“Marks, grades, ranks, salary packages. Associating your self worth to a number is the worst thing you can do to a teenager in his/her most impressionable years. Also, we need to fact check the superlative claims made by such institutes. If everyone promises the best and most experienced faculty for kids, you can imagine the dilemma in the minds of parents. These claims need to be fact checked by the elected and qualified bodies to begin with. If not, they will continue to create a doomsday like atmosphere where every ad induces FOMO in the minds of the ever anxious parents of India,” said Banerjee. 

The larger problem which unfortunately cannot be governed is the way education advertising encourages the rat race and the percentage game.

“It’s all about the marks. This definitely adds to the already existing pressure on children. There definitely is space for purpose-driven, inspiring work,” said Nisha Singhania- Chief Executive Officer, Infectious Advertising.

Manish Agarwal, Co-founder & CMO of PrepInsta, believes that it’s essential for the EdTech industry to take any positive feedback seriously and make necessary changes in their approach towards advertising and marketing if needed. Only then, will they build a reputation of being responsible and dependable, and promote a healthy academic environment. 

He said that the industry needs to improve transparency, ensure accuracy, be mindful of the audience, promote balance, and monitoring and address consumer complaints. 

“One way the EdTech industry could address this issue is by focusing on promoting the benefits of their products or services in a balanced way, rather than building high pressure or unrealistic expectations. For example, instead of highlighting how their platform can help students excel academically, they could focus on how it can help students learn more engagingly and interactively, or how it can support a student’s overall well-being,” said Agarwal. 

The EdTech industry has now started giving real-life examples, which is a welcome change. Through real-life examples, Scaler’s campaigns such as #CreateImpact revolve around solving the issue that the Indian technology industry faces with its skill gap. 

“One way the industry could be more responsible with its advertising is by being transparent and highlighting practical and real-life problems and solutions… We use our learners’ real-life challenges and experiences to create content that inspires prospective learners and improves their career journeys. There is an absolute need for campaigns to shift their focus away from academic achievements and on tools that could aid the student’s self-directed learning and personal growth rather than means to achieve external validation through high grades and test scores. Organizations should keep these fundamental aspects in check right from the nascent stages of campaign building to avoid mis-selling or exploitation,” said Rahul Karthikeyan, CMO, Scaler & InterviewBit. 

To solve some fundamental infrastructure challenges and revolutionise Indian education, ASCI’s study also recommends that the depiction of the relationship between the student and learning needs to be improved, and the industry also needs to look into its authenticity of situations, promises and claims.